Commentary

PBS Goes App-First With Ken Burns' Series

Prohibition

If you want to take a sip of Ken Burns' upcoming documentary series on Prohibition before its early October on-air premiere, then pull out your iPhone or iPad. The public broadcaster is taking an app-first approach to the series. iOS users only will be able to access the episode for the next week or so, and then the series will be available on demand at the PBS site after the episodes air. 

This marks a unique windowing approach to a TV series. The first episode will be available only on iOS until its three-night run on PBS Sunday through Tuesday, Oct. 2, 3 and 4, when it also will be streamed on Video.PBS.org live as it runs on TV. The episodes will continue to be available on demand on iOS until Oct. 7, when the DVD version goes on sale as well as episodes on iTunes.

The pre-release of the initial episode on iPhone and iPad is in tandem with the return of HBO's Prohibition-era drama "Boardwalk Empire." In  a statement, Burns says "We are huge fans of 'Boardwalk Empire' and are thrilled we can share the story of what gave rise to prohibition, the topic of our first episode, to viewers turning to the premiere of 'Boardwalk.'"

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It might be a little tough for people to find the "Prohibition" documentary. You need to know to download the PBS app in iOS, where the episode is found among the PBS slate of on-demand programming. This serves PBS's marketing goal of using Burns' popularity to draw interest to their app and thus to other programming. But for the purposes of sheer discovery and promotion in iTunes, one wonders if a standalone app would have been better. PBS released the first episode into its app on Friday Sept. 23, and there hasn't been a whiff of it visible in the App Store itself. Thus the promotional app ecosystem isn't being brought to bear, unless Apple and PBS have planned something to appear this week in the App Store. It raises the issue and problem of leveraging the platform to market specific new content within an existing media branded app. An app is not a network.

Still, PBS says that it has been successful in debuting series in their app. It claims over 52 million streams have been served from the 250 hours of programming available here.

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